Robert Thomas had never heard of the Internet, or e-mail. And all the talk yesterday of visiting the Smithsonian without leaving home, or conversing with his classmates by modem, had the second-grader a little overwhelmed.
But when he realized why all the government officials had descended on his Dundalk school, why he needed to dress up in his church clothes, his eyes widened with visions of futuristic science projects.
"You said we're going to get a computer, at home, like that?" he asked, pointing to a Macintosh in Logan Elementary's school office.
Officials from Bell Atlantic Corp. and state and local governments were announcing a ground-breaking project that aims to link parents to teachers and to bridge the divide between the technological haves and have-nots.
"Logan Online" will place computers in the classrooms and homes of all 97 incoming third-graders and their teachers for the next three years, beginning this fall. In addition, the telecommunications company will provide six computers, a teacher workstation, a printer, a copier and a cellular phone to each classroom in grades three through five.
"Wonderful," said Robert's mother, Sharone Jordan, a Baltimore Circuit Court clerical assistant who attended the ceremony. "I've wanted a computer," said the single mother, "but my budget doesn't allow it right now."
Principal Francine M. Schaffer sees the $2.9 million test project as a way to remove income barriers in education. Her school serves mostly children from working-class families, 53 percent of whom are poor enough to qualify for subsidized lunches. The school's test scores, though improving, are below state standards.
Officials predict that the project, which will allow parents to communicate with teachers via computer, will boost parents' involvement. The school will track the children's test scores for three years to measure the impact of technology on performance.
But as with any expensive test, what this will do for the entire school system is unclear.
Of the estimated cost, about $1.5 million will be borne by Bell Atlantic. Gov. Parris N. Glendening has kicked in $100,000 in his proposed budget. The rest will be paid by other corporate partners, including Microsoft, Xerox and Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.
Clearly, the same cannot be done for all 158 schools in Baltimore County, nor for the 1,265 across Maryland, though state officials hope other companies will copy the effort.
Daniel J. Whelan, president of Bell Atlantic-Maryland, said he hopes the test will prove the technology so successful in enhancing achievement that it will force school boards to redirect money toward technology. Standing in the school's library yesterday, Mr. Whelan noted that every book in the room could be accessible by computer.
"You don't really need some of these things anymore," he said, referring to printed books.
The undertaking is the second of its kind by Bell Atlantic.
In 1993, the company placed computers in the classrooms and homes of middle school students in a low-income neighborhood in Union City, N.J. Test scores rose significantly, which school officials attributed to increased participation by parents and an improved attitude toward school, said Abraham Antun, president of the Union City Board of Education.
The company pledged to duplicate the project in Maryland after Major F. Riddick Jr., Mr. Glendening's chief of staff, issued a public challenge to Bell Atlantic Chairman Raymond W. Smith in December. Experts who work with technology in education say the two projects are likely the only ones of their kind in the nation.
The computers are expected to be IBM-compatible models equipped with modems, allowing teachers and students to communicate through e-mail. Each will have an Internet address. And each classroom and the library will be networked, providing access to on-line encyclopedias and libraries around the world.
The school will be able to post homework assignments, school calendars and meeting notices on the network. Children will be able to continue learning when they are sick, on weekends, on snow days and throughout the summer.
As business and government officials gathered in the school's auditorium yesterday, lacing their speeches with tributes to the wonder of public-private partnerships and education for the 21st century, second-graders put the project in more basic terms.
"You can do your homework on computer, and you don't have to get your hand tired from writing," said Kami Bowman, 7.
"A computer is like having your own friend, except it can't talk," said Greg Boccia, 8.
"I'm going to look up old people and get information," added Dale Piercy Jr., 7.
"He means like old presidents," said Stephanie Spokus, 7.
"Yeah," Dale said. "Like George Washington."
Pub Date: 3/26/96